New woodland director destroyed virgin forest

Geoffrey Lean on the Forestry Commission chief's controversial past
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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S woodlands will tomorrow be placed in the hands of a controversial Australian who has outraged environmentalists by felling virgin forest and pleading for understanding of violent attacks on protesters.

David Bills, the new director-general of the Forestry Commission, the nation's largest landowner, will be in charge of implementing tough policies which are bringing about a creeping privatisation of Britain's forests.

Ministers will shortly announce new rules which will force the commission to earn pounds 20m a year from selling off forests, or make up the shortfall out of its own budget. And Mr Bills - who has been appointed by a team of ministers led by the right-wing Scottish Secretary, Michael Forsyth - says his priority is to "ensure commercial outcomes in line with the Government's expectations".

Environmentalists in Britain and in Tasmania, where the 47-year-old businessman has run the state's biggest forestry company for the past nine years, have attacked his appointment. Professor David Bellamy, who was briefly imprisoned after protests in Tasmania in the 1980s, calls him "one of a ring of rednecks who have put Australia down the bottom of the conservation ladder by destroying their old-growth forests".

Mr Bills insists that his record is as a "voice of reason" and a "moderate in brokering peaceful solutions". The chairman of the Forestry Commission, Sir Peter Hutchinson, says he has "a reputation for his calm and successful dealings with high-profile environmental issues".

What is certain is that he has for years been at the heart of the often bitter dispute over the future of the magnificent native forests that cover about half of Australia's most southerly state. From 1986 until earlier this year he was general manager of North Forest Products Limited, which turns 2.5 million tons of Tasmanian trees a year into chips of wood for paper-making.

Nearly three-quarters of this is sold overseas, mainly to Japan, making the company the largest exporter of such wood chips in the world. All of this comes from natural forests, and though many of these have been logged before, some are the virgin "old-growth" prized by conservationists. The great majority are eucalyptus forests, but the company also fells some temperate rainforest. About half of the forests are "clear felled", being razed to the ground.

As leader of an industry association, Mr Bills unsuccessfully opposed the protection of Tasmania's rare lemon thyme and southern eucalyptus forests as World Heritage Areas, the highest international conservation accolade.

He was the chief advocate for building a giant pulp mill on the island state's north-west coast in the late Eighties, a project which was stopped by the intervention of the Australian government following a massive protest against the expected pollution.

An internal North Forest Products document seen by the Independent on Sunday says that its own research shows it "was considered an untrustworthy company by about two-thirds of the population".

Mr Bills says the company only cuts old-growth forest at government direction and that the rainforest being felled is degraded and has been logged before. Under his stewardship, he says, the planting of new trees increased nearly ninefold, and these will eventually reduce the need to cut natural forests. He says the company sets aside rainforest in voluntary reserves and has won awards for well-managed land. He casts doubt on the opinion survey and says other research shows Tasmanians do not want the company to leave the state. And he points out that nearly one-third of the state is already protected in World Heritage Areas, adding: "How much more do we need?"

He has supporters among conservationists. Dr Bob Cotgrove, a lecturer in the geography and environment studies department at Tasmania University, who says he opposed the pulp mill championed by Mr Bills, says: "He is a fairly tough character, but I would not regard him as being unreasonable. He is not a redneck by any means".

He admits Mr Bills is the chief target of Tasmanian environmentalists, but says this is "unjustified" and praises his "calm and balanced view of forestry".

But Geoff Law, of the Tasmania Wilderness Society, describes him as "a major advocate for the woodchipping of native forests", and Tim Cadman, of the Native Forest Network, says: "He is absolutely detested by the conservation movement in Tasmania and we are very worried about what he will do in Britain."

British environmentalists are particularly alarmed by a letter to a Tasmanian newspaper in January 1993, in which Mr Bills accused demonstrators, who "court danger by standing in front of machines or climbing trees to be felled", of having "fun" while the loggers "suffer major financial loss". He added: "Although it is clearly in the interests of the environmental lobby to create newsworthy conflict, they have joined the industry in condemning violence. If violence does emerge, before passing judgement we should take time to understand the perspective of somebody being driven to financial ruin by being prevented from conducting lawful work approved by state and federal governments, as opposed to recruited demonstrators on a Tasmanian holiday."

Alan Mattingly, director of Britain's Ramblers' Association, says: "This is more or less saying that the loggers can take the law into their own hands. It is hard to believe that the panel that appointed Mr Bills was aware of this, and if they were it is very worrying. This chap is going to have to work very hard if he is going to convince the environmental organisations that he is not the devil incarnate."

Dr George Monbiot, co-ordinator of The Land Is Ours, which has undertaken peaceful occupations of land - and whose foot was broken during an anti- road demonstration last year - says: "This seems very clearly to be excusing violence. We have already seen a lot of cases in this country where non- violent protests have been dealt with violently, something that, thanks to a lot of negotiation, we might be able to bring to an end."

He said he was concerned that Mr Bills's attitude might bring a return to violence and added: "If he cannot understand the genuine passions and feelings that drive people to risk life and limb to try to protect areas precious to most people, he is not suitable to be put in charge of a priceless national resource."

Mr Bills is unrepentant. He says he is not excusing violence, but insists that the protesters "go out of their way to provoke a violent response from loggers", and that their "so-called passive resistance" is "a very cynical exercise". He adds: "I am personally disappointed that a few of my old foes in the conservation movement are taking my success and my international recognition so much to heart. After years of seeing me as a foe, I guess they are bitter about the fact that I seem to have done well. I am very proud of this appointment and know that most Australians are too."